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Graduate student workers union calls on UMaine system to negotiate a fair contract

The University of Maine Graduate Workers Union gathers outside the Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center on the Orono campus, where contract negotiations with the University of Maine System continue inside.
Kaitlyn Budion
Maine Public
The University of Maine Graduate Workers Union gathers outside the Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center on the Orono campus, where contract negotiations with the University of Maine System continue inside.

The newly formed University of Maine Graduate Workers Union is calling on the University of Maine system to negotiate a fair contract and add protections for graduate student workers. It's part of a rise in union activity at colleges and universities across the country, where many staffers are demanding better pay and working conditions.

"We're not recognized and respected for the work that we do here."

Em Sowles is a fourth-year Ph.D student in the physics department, where she also works as a research assistant. She's one of the many union members at the rally demanding that a range of protections be formalized in the contract, including higher pay.

Sowles says she made $28,000 last year, and has struggled to find housing near campus.

"I've you know, tried to survive the best that I can as a graduate worker, and it is at times like it gets really tight," Sowles said.

The union is calling on the system to offer protections for international student workers like Alessandro Mereghetti.

"They say they don't want to treat us differently, but we are treated differently already, we are different, we came from very far away, we have faced a lot of things that they don't even imagine."

Andrea Tirrell, a research assistant studying ecology and environmental studies, says workers pushed the university system to recognize the union, and now are pushing for protections in a union contract.

"The changes we need will not come from the top, we will not see changes in our working and living conditions by begging the president, by begging the chancellor or by begging our advisors, but rather when we work together and insist on change through our union is when we will see change," Tirrell said.

A spokesperson for the university system says that administrators greatly value student contributions, and are optimistic a contract can be reached that will satisfy both the workers and the university.

Graduate student employees aren't alone in their frustrations. The Maine Service Employees Association, which represents staff within the Maine Community College System, picketed outside a Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday. The union's contract expired eight months ago, and workers are demanding higher wages, and a reinstatement of merit wage increases- which were frozen 15 years ago.

"I think it's important that Maine Community College System lead the way in fixing these issues in higher ed," said Katrina Ray-Saulis, a field representative with the union, and an adjunct professor.

"I think that this is a chronic issue across higher education, that they're relying more and more on lower wage staff, lower wage faculty," she said. "And if we can't lead the way on that is a failing system."

This is all part of a rise in union activity at universities across the country, says Michael Hillard, an economics professor in Maine who studies labor movements. Hillard calls it part of a growing "movement culture."

"We have a strong culture, which you see throughout the labor movement, particularly but not only with young people right now. You see this kind of willingness to be active," he said.

Hillard points to the University of California system in 2022, when graduate workers went on strike and won major changes in their contract. And the Boston University Graduate Workers Union that went on strike just this week.

"So you know, you just have this kind of overall picture where, you know, there's a recognition that it's not a good economic deal ... And so you match that structural reality of like the economics becoming terrible for many of the people involved with the movement culture I've been talking about, and you get a labor movement in higher ed that looks like the auto industry in the 1930s," Hillard said.

For the graduate workers at the University of Maine including Em Sowles, negotiations are approaching their fifth month. But Sowles says she and her union colleagues are determined to get a better deal in their contract- not just around pay and benefits, but also the systems for reporting discrimination and harassment.

"And I think that the way that we're addressing that is exactly what this entire rally is about is we're coming together as a collective and showing just how powerful we are," Sowles said.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.